Why So Many Yards?

Urban sprawl is an issue in cities everywhere. The civic election that will take place in Edmonton today includes issues revolving around urban sprawl, such as redeveloping our city airport into a housing project. (Vote Steve Mandel for Mayor and Kim Cassaday for councillor in Ward 3 if you want the city centre airport redeveloped) Take a walk around the block someday, and pay attention to what people do with their yards. Then ask yourself, “Why do we have yards at all?”

I did just that this Sunday morning, paying attention to mostly just the front yards. My criteria were simple (yet judgmental and harsh): if lawn dominated the garden (75% or more) than I concluded that the front yard was worthless. If the garden had some attempt (at least 25% of the total area) at planted landscaping, then I marked it as being useful. I even marked  front gardens that were dominated by overgrown pine or spruce as useful, because even if often ugly, they at least provide some habitat. My findings will surprise no one: 86% of front yards are worthless. (I did not take back yards into account, as they are often hard to view clearly from back alleys – I believe that most back yards are fairly well used – vegetable gardens, deck and patio space, children’s play areas, dog runs and the inevitable shed to store all the equipment required to look after lawns) So the question arises again: just why do we have front yards? Aesthetics? A resounding no. Food? No. Habitat for wildlife? No. Play area? well…seldom. I only know of one house in our daily walk where children occasionally play in the front garden. So why this wasted space? Why are we wasting land (and our water resources to sustain it) to this extent?

Gambler House expands on the environmental consequences of lawns, and examines a new study that shows the history of one of the reasons we have gardens…and the answer can be stinky…

Visit Why do Americans Have Yards? at Gambler House.


2 thoughts on “Why So Many Yards?

  1. Hi Adrian,

    I think you are confounding front yards with lawns. Personally, I wouldn’t want my house any closer to the road than it has to be. I’ve had friends and relatives who lived in large cities (Washington DC, San Francisco) who had essentially no front yard – maybe 3 m to the sidewalk – and not much of a backyard either. That’s what you get when land is too expensive: there isn’t room for any gardening outside of pots, little uncovered space for the rain to seep in, and your neighbours are only a wall away.

    Why we do so little with our front yards is a good question. The simplest answer is probably cost – a lawn may be mostly empty space, but it is a reasonably cheap way to cover a lot of ground. If you live in the East with reliable summer rain and a traditional family with kids to mow, then it can be a very cost effective way to keep the street away and fit in with the rest of the block.

    Why lawns have been propagated into climatic zones where they make no sense is a question I would ask. Also, why do we have bylaws that limit the height of front fencing? If people were able to wall off their front yards, like their backs, then they would probably be more willing to experiment and be different from their neighbours. Also, a good front fence would act as a buffer between noisy neighbours, door-to-door peddlers, and other riffraff.

    I’ve always like the Spanish courtyard style. Other than planting and watering and wandering for a few moments when I get home from work, we spend little time in the south-facing front yard. That is a waste in this climate, especially in spring and fall when the sun is too weak to warm the back. If I could fence the front, though, we certainly would spend more time there.




  2. I could have connected the dots better, but I did hope to raise a broad discussion with a rant. So much for that idea!

    My definition of ‘usefulness’ requires that it by used by man, or as habitat for wildlife. Mowing the lawn doesn’t count! My point would be that since most people don’t use the front yards, so why have them? Lot sizes should be reduced and that front yards be limited in size. I have seen some truly pleasant communities in Europe that are set up that way. It would allow for greater housing densities and slow down urban sprawl.


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